Rookie Chase Elliott’s first career NASCAR Cup victory was within his sights Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.
Then, what seemed to be the inevitable happened. With four laps remaining and Elliott holding on to a narrow lead over Martin Truex Jr., Michael McDowell’s right front tire blew. That brought out a caution flag and critical pit stops for Elliott and Truex.
Truex’s crew was a little faster, getting the No. 78 Toyota back on the track quicker than Elliott’s No. 24 Chevy. It was enough for Truex to go on to win the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 and for Elliott to later shrug his shoulders helplessly.
“I expected it,” said Elliott, who led for 75 laps. “We’ve all watched this stuff long enough. We know these races don’t go green that long, typically. We know that we see late-race cautions way more often than not. That’s a part of racing from short-track racing all the way up to this stuff.”
Elliott finished third, behind Truex and Joey Logano. He is sixth in the points heading into the second race of the Chase’s first round at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Elliott has done just about everything but win in his first full season on the Cup circuit. He has eight top-five finishes – including second-place performances at the two Michigan races. Late cautions and a faulty restart cost him there, as well.
“There is no easy outcome,” Elliott said. “You know, it’s unfortunate. You hate to have it happen. As you get faced with these situations more than once, I think you learn. You learn from situation to situation.
“You can’t control when a caution is going to come out. Granted, you can expect one a lot of the time, but you can’t control when it’s going to happen, and you certainly can’t control how many guys are going to stay out on tires and try to make something happen at the end of a race.”
Elliott’s lead over Truex had shrunk to about one second when McDowell’s tire blew. Truex knew that was his shot.
“I feel for Chase,” Truex said. “I know what he’s going through. I wasn’t catching him. I don’t think we were going to pass him unless he got loose or made a mistake. I was really struggling to chase him down.”
That was unfortunate for Elliott, who shrugged his shoulders again.
“That’s just a part of life,” Elliott said. “Part of racing.”